An uneasy, tonally awkward testament to the sourball heart of the candy-colored American Dream, George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” can’t be described as a home run. But as an artifact of its era, it bristles with genuine discernment and rage that cannot be denied. A burlesque of racist panic that eventually gives way to Hitchcockian horror — before devolving into grotesquerie and gore — this is a film whose unwieldy origins are inscribed in nearly every frame: Clooney and his collaborator Grant Heslov had been working on a drama about the integration of the white, middle-class community of Levittown, Pa., in the 1950s when Clooney recalled a Coen brothers script he’d once been cast in, a dark satire called “Suburbicon.” He decided to merge the two projects, resulting in a movie that possesses the stylized, lethal-Looney-Tunes slapstick we’ve come to associate with Coenesque humor, as well as the fiery, thinly disguised polemic of such past Clooney projects as “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
The result is a film of frequently provocative and queasily effective parts that never comes together as an effective whole. As “Suburbicon” opens, the audience views an industrial-style film introducing the Edenic title community, a model of postwar prosperity and promise that serves as a “melting pot” of diversity — meaning white families from as far away as New York, Ohio, even Mississippi. While chirpy music plays, the Dick-and-Jane vibe comes to a screeching halt when the postman, who knows everyone by name, stops by the Meyers home, only to discover that the African American woman who answers the door isn’t their maid, but Mrs. Meyers herself.
Impassioned meetings, petitions and finally bursts of vigilante violence ensue, while the Meyerses’ neighbors, the Lodges, face their own threats. While young Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) embarks on a baseball-centric friendship with Andy Meyers (Tony Espinosa), his parents Gardner and Rose (Matt Damon and Julianne Moore) become embroiled in a bizarre crime whose cascading consequences recall “Fargo” both in their ridiculousness and unsparing cruelty.
With its “Mad Man”-era aesthetic and Alexandre Desplat’s marvelous orchestral score, “Suburbicon” exerts a seductive, fetishistic pull, made all the more delicious by the fact that Moore is cast in a “Vertigo”-like double role. Damon delivers a spot-on performance as the Coen archetype — the beleaguered Everyman hoist on his own bumblingly self-destructive petard — and Jupe thoroughly erases his British roots to convincingly channel trusting, wide-eyed innocence and the horrific dawning of its destruction.
Clooney’s allegorical point — that the performative wholesomeness of the Lodge household is just as bogus as the self-proclaimed virtue of the racists terrorizing the black family next door — is an astute one. There are moments in “Suburbicon” that feel just as clear and damning as the sequence in last year’s “I Am Not Your Negro” when scenes from Doris Day movies were intercut with images of lynchings that were happening at the same time. As a portrait of the venality, perversion and deceit at the heart of white privilege and obliviousness, “Suburbicon” chooses its targets with insight and reckless brio.
But the movie’s aim falters at crucial junctures. When meeting with reporters at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Clooney noted that he re-cut “Suburbicon” after the 2016 presidential election — but long before this summer’s racist march in Charlottesville — fired by his own ire and sense of betrayal, and his sense that the film needed to be angrier, less silly (he excised an entire sequence featuring Josh Brolin that was intended as comic relief). If Clooney was eerily prescient in that regard, “Suburbicon” nonetheless can’t navigate the tricky tonal shifts without feeling disjointed and divided against itself. As kitschiness gives way to savagery, the tonal balance finally and fatally succumbs.
Simultaneously, Mr. and Mrs. Meyers — who are played by Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke — turn out to be strangely marginal to a film that begins to suffer from the very thing it abhors. If “Suburbicon’s” intentions are noble in focusing on white pathology, it does so at the narrative expense of African American characters whose story is relegated to literal background noise. Which isn’t to say that a bitter truth can’t be found in the midst of “Suburbicon’s” carnage, which might be all the more stinging for being so imperfectly expressed. Clooney has made a film just as confounding, disturbing, messed-up and infuriating as the era it reflects — for better and for worse.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, obscenity and some sexuality. 105 minutes.